With 2016 rules in flux, Sprint Cup drivers asking whether the 2015 changes are working

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CONCORD, N.C. – The last time NASCAR’s garage warriors gathered at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there was bubbly chatter over the encouraging signs of a proposed rules package for the 2016 season.

Two months later, the Sprint Cup Series has returned to the 1.5-mile track with a decidedly different tone about where its cars are headed next season.

After unveiling a two-step process last year that would include another reduction in downforce for 2016, NASCAR has backed off and said it might leave the 2015 rules (which featured a drop of 125 horsepower and roughly 30 percent less downforce) in place next year. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said there was some pushback from teams worried about absorbing the costs of the rule changes.

After floating the idea of using the 2016 rules in Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race, NASCAR scrapped the plan last month. Several Goodyear tests of the proposed 2016 alignment were eliminated this week, leaving only an October test at Auto Club Speedway on the books to try next year’s rules.

A March 10 session at Charlotte was the most recent test of the intended rules for 2016. Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Alimrola and JJ Yeley. O’Donnell then said the goal was to develop ways to decrease corner speeds, which have spiked as much as 18 mph this season because drivers are on the throttle longer with reduced horsepower. That often decreases the opportunities for passing in the corners.

Kahne said Friday that he was pleased with how his No. 5 Chevrolet handled during the test.

“I like driving the car by myself way better than the car we have right now,” he said. “You could actually lift (off the accelerator) and move around on the track.

“It was kind of like it was back in 2004 or 2005 with the characteristics of the car and how it was handling. I was remembering things as I was driving. I was like, ‘Man, I used to have this feel.’ We don’t have that feel anymore with all the downforce we have.”

Kahne said, though, there were limits to how much could be learned about the new package in traffic with only four cars participating in the test. Truex said the tire also wasn’t optimum for judging the package.

“I think it was a good direction,” Truex said. “I just don’t think we had the right tire for the package. We didn’t have the right tire; we didn’t have enough cars. It was hard to gauge exactly what was better about it or what was worse about it.

“The four of us that were out there trying to race and see how the car ran in traffic, we didn’t get the feel that we thought we would with less downforce. The off-throttle time was a little bit more, but it seemed like the guy with clean air had more advantage than what we had with the 2015 rules. So, there was nothing clear. I wish we could have done it with more cars and had some more tires for options to really get to work on it because it had some things. The speeds were slower in the middle of the corner, which is what everybody is looking for. We just didn’t have the combination and the amount of guys to really put it to use.”

The feedback on the 2015 package has been a mixed bag, particularly on the 1.5-mile tracks that comprise the bulk of the schedule and where the rules are aimed at enhancing passing. In the four 1.5-mile races this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, green-flag passes dramatically have risen nearly 40 percent – 12,669 in 2015 vs. 9,172 at comparative events in 2014. Lead changes also are up slightly in those four races (91 in 2015 vs. 85 last year)

But the Chevrolets of Jimmie Johnson (wins at Atlanta, Texas, Kansas) and Kevin Harvick (Las Vegas) have dominated the races, and several drivers have grumbled that an overreliance on aerodynamics still is hampering action and putting the leader at a distinct advantage. Friday’s Sprint Showdown at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval featured segment winner Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer pulling away from the pack and cruising to easy wins.

“I absolutely believe the center-of-the-corner speeds are way too high,” Carl Edwards said last week at Kansas. “I feel like we should be out of the gas a lot more.

“I feel like our whole sport is based on guys racing stock cars around and manhandling the cars and being able to run close. I feel like we’ve gone farther and farther away from that because of all of the knowledge and engineering and the dependence on aero. I know NASCAR wants the same thing we all want. We want the best racing in the world and want it to be exciting, but I do fear we are getting to a point where the cars are so easy to drive and so dependent on clean air and going so fast and relying on engineering, that we are really losing the most fun part of it. I hope NASCAR continues to look at a much less aero-dependent package.”

Brad Keselowski said NASCAR’s quest to improve racing is perpetual.

“You have to keep a vision always,” the 2012 series champion said this week. “The racing can always be better. There’s no question about that. In that spirit, we should always keep working on it. To not work on it is to take a step backward because the teams will always iterate the cars to decrease the quality of competition. That’s our job. This sport requires a year-by-year reset to nullify the damage we do as teams to competition. It’s in itself ‘Spy Vs. Spy’ between the teams and NASCAR. It brings up an interesting discussion of how do you do that every year.

“It seems to me that in the five-and-a-half years I’ve spent in Sprint Cup, that discussion continues to get harder and harder every year with more and more disagreement about how to achieve a strong balance. There are certain things I would like to see for sure that I think can be achieved with cost but reasonable cost, but at this time there doesn’t appear to be enough collaboration to make that happen.’’

Clint Bowyer said the current corner speeds are “exactly opposite of what all the drivers were asking for and hoping for. … You need more off-throttle time to create a racing environment on the race track. If you’re wide open and you’re not lifting, I don’t know how you’re going to get around that car in front of you when they’re doing the same.”

Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas: Start time, TV channel

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The second round of the Cup playoffs begins with the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The 1.5-mile track kicks off the Round of 12. Winning the race and stage points are a premium for playoff drivers before the races at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Kevin Harvick, who won at Bristol, starts from the pole.

Here is all the info for the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis at 7:07 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at Noon. Drivers report to their cars at 6:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7 p.m. by Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain, Billy Mauldin. The national anthem will be performed by Sierra Black at 7:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 6:30 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny skies with a high of 96 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Busch to win at Bristol and claim his ninth win of the season.

LAST POINTS RACE AT LAS VEGAS: Joey Logano beat Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in February.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup.

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win but without hometown fans

Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

Charlotte Roval to host limited number of fans

Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report